Paris, 1895. A military courtyard with the Eiffel Tower in the background. A man is led towards a high-ranking soldier who removes his epaulettes then one-by-one cuts the buttons from his military jacket. He is asked to hand over his sword, which is ceremonially broken into two. He is led away, still protesting his innocence.
This is Alfred Dreyfuss, who was jailed and sent to Devil’s Island, accused of treachery. The charges were false, and caused by anti-semitic hatred of one of the few Jewish officers in the French army. But this is not Dreyfuss’s story – it belongs to Colonel Picquardt (Jean Dujardin), who wears a military kepi and brown moustache which make him look very like Inspector Clouseau.
Like most French officers at the time, Picquardt is a raving antisemite and, in the wake of the Dreyfuss affair, he inherits an army job in charge of Counter Intelligence. It is in this job that he discovers that the letters written to convict Dreyfuss were obviously written by someone else. Picquardt goes to his senior officers to plead Dreyfuss’s innocence, but they are having none of it.
What follows is some of the most plodding, uninspired plot development that I have seen in a long time. Some white moustachioed men in dark suits talk to some other identical looking men. They go and find some more men with slightly different looking moustaches. There is a sort of subplot about an affair Picquardt is having with a married woman, but while this relieves some of the tension its not really interesting.
The German title of the film means Intrigue, which is at the very least a good explanation of the content. History rolls along behind closed doors, and we are not given any impression that what people actually do make much difference. At one stage Emile Zola is rolled out to write his famous “J’Accuse” article, which is published on the front page of a newspaper but even this doesn’t seem to affect much.
Now I’m not fond of the Great Man theory of history or film, so I’m not opposed in principle to relegating Zola to a very minor supporting role. But this is taking it a bit far. The article (who’s title, incidentally, is also used as the title of the French version of this film) did help galvanise resistance to the persecution of Dreyfuss in particular, and antisemitism in general.
This was not down to the genius of Zola but of real mass movements, not that you’d notice from this film. Non-army people only really appear in this film for two very brief moments. Once when they are loyally cheering an army general, and then when they are burning Zola’s books while painting Stars of David and “Kill the Jews” in white paint on Jewish shops, before throwing stones through the windows.
We’ll leave aside for a moment the wisdom of painting on windows that you’re about to break, but the symbolism here is quite obvious. The rancid antisemitism in France at the end of the 19th Century was as bad as that in Germany under the Nazis. Now there’s arguably a case to be made here, until you listen to the interviews that Polanksi gave around the film’s release, which reveal a much more pernicious argument.
Outside his films, Roman Polanksi is know for two things (well, three, but we’ll leave the murder of his wife Sharon Tate alone for the moment). Firstly, as a Jewish child after Hitler’s invasion of Poland, he was trapped in the Krakow Ghetto. Among other things, this helped inspire his great film The Pianist, and, together with Tate’s murder, clearly traumatized him.
And then there was the Unpleasantness in 1977, when he was convicted of sex with a minor. Furthermore there was enough reasonable evidence to believe that he drugged and raped a 13-year old girl that he will still not visit any country with an extradition treatment with the USA (he lives in France which does have such a treaty, but Polanksi has taken French citizenship and France won’t extradite its own citizens).
It seems that Polanski is not just comparing Nazi persecution with the French antisemitic mobs, but with anyone who wants to bring him to justice for child rape. Does this matter on an artistic level? You could possibly put an argument that anything should be possible in Art. You could, but in this case, it would still put you on very dodgy moral ground.
For the past few decades, Polanksi has been the anti-Woody Allen. As the controversy around rape accusations against Allen continues, its been pretty easy for people to boycott his films, as they have been almost universally terrible. Polanksi’s recent work, however, contains some of the best films of his career. Its a shame that this is not one of them.
Since witch hunting is in vogue once more, we are currently in need of a great, or even workmanlike, retelling of the Dreyfuss affair. But by largely taking Dreyfuss (and his key supporters like Zola) out of the picture, what Polanski gives us is a drawn out court procedure, which is largely lacking in any dramatic tension and fails to adequately show how the hysteria around Dreyfuss could take hold.
It all could have been so different. The cinematography is great, the cast is world class, and every so often we get a feeling that something interesting is just around the corner. But the more we approach that corner, the further away it seems to get. I had high hopes in this film. It just wasn’t able to deliver on its promise.